Sunday, August 24, 2014

Let's Really Talk About Race

This is no way to conduct a conversation
So many kind, well-intentioned white people seem to be on “autopilot” when it comes to issues of race in America. Specifically, when persons of color insist they regularly experience racial oppression, their statements often get minimized or worse, refuted by the white person, often followed by a canned problem-solving lecture on American values and equality of opportunity. Yet some so-called races are more equal than others.

More than a few white folks believe race is no barrier to success; for persons of color who are floundering, in order to make it, just work harder, learn to proper speak English, pull up the sagging pants and along with them your bootstraps.

Downgraded or ignored with disappointing regularity are festering wounds caused by racially oppressive policies and practices (and the historic institutions that prop them up). Like a virus invading the body, institutional racism has overridden our moral compasses and systematically infected every nook and cranny of our great society.

But unlike most influenza cases, which cause temporary physical harm, racism inflicts enduring, often invisible emotional and psychological damage. For nonwhites like me, the injuries can be readily apparent and a near everyday occurrence. Ironically, whites suffer too; most just can’t see or feel it. How could they without knowing the “symptoms”?
Let's stop the trash talking on all sides
Being part of the dominant race group in America, a white person has the luxury of choosing to be, or not be, part of the racial oppression conversation. But like toxic waste buried deep underground, it eventually leeches out. And it does so in ways that are obvious and not so apparent.

When most folks finally do get around to talking about race, it tends to be conducted in ways that affirm their position, and usually with people who agree with them. The result: little dialog around the issue’s deep, often contradictory complexity.

Heard from both sides: “It’s their problem.” “Talking about it only fuels the issue.” “Why can’t they all act more like [fill in the blank]?”

Even when we’re not talking race, we’re thinking about it. All of us. Consciously and unconsciously. Science bears this out in countless studies on the reality known as implicit bias.

Race is a complicated subject. It’s messy and painful in a way that has no single remedy. Hard work, yes. Education, yes. But also empathy. Race is a subject in which all sides should be heard. Dialog, not monolog. With deep, active listening for understanding happening on all sides.

Most of us are stuck though. Pinned down in the trenches of self-righteousness. We assess other positions based on our own rigid, unwavering stance. Fueled by whichever network talking heads best represent the simplistic soundtrack looping in our minds.

Possibilities become unlimited through honest dialog
The result? Stalemate. No progress. The same verbal assaults, armed with age-old rhetoric so cemented in our psyche that we’re not even open to the single most scary possibility of all: what if we’re wrong? No ideas, just ideals. It’s like World War I again, but the combat employs words instead of bullets. Well, sometimes bullets are used…

Time to declare a ceasefire. Time for all sides to come to the table for straight talk. Not an angry discussion but an authentic one in which all sides speak from the heart; and all sides listen. It’s a dialogue that avoids topics like who did what to whom and when. Been there, done that. Instead let’s explore how we might collectively transform the nature of our society and its currently broken systems (education, food, healthcare, housing, etc.) into ones that facilitate opportunities for all, no matter our race.

Like all hard discussions, there’s only one right time; and that’s now. I, for one am ready. There are others. Will you join the dialogue?


Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Little Cooperation Goes a Long Way

That's LUKE'S father, not mine

Before he passed away, my dad bequeathed something to me I’ll always treasure: his love of driving. He didn’t own a performance car, luxury vehicle or anything exotic (unless Oldsmobile 98s qualify). Still, I considered him something of a Jedi Master on the road. Not because of his DMV book knowledge or cat like reflexes – both of which I possess, by the way.

Instead, he passed down to me something more subtle, yet vitally important. He shared his insight into the “hidden” rules of the road. They aren’t found in official manuals. But they can be learned; it just takes time, attention and anticipation. It also requires a good deal of patience and cooperation.

Over the years, Dad showed me the importance of interpreting what was happening on the road and then adjusting my driving accordingly. When he was driving and other vehicles were nearby, he mentally calculated what they were doing, what they might want to do and then adjusted his driving to blend with theirs.

Dad was a Jedi master on freeways
It was more than situational awareness. Dad engaged in what might be referred to as a symbiotic relationship with other drivers as much as possible. It was a condition in which all parties benefited. A result was that all drivers were safer and could achieve whatever it was they were trying to do in the moment.

It would be interesting to know how many folks on the road work in cooperation with other drivers, rather than in competition. Where did Dad learn this? If I had to guess: truck drivers.

Most, but not all, truck drivers tend to conduct themselves on the road collectively in a more cooperative fashion then we pedestrian drivers in our cars and SUVs. They do have a nasty habit of stacking up traffic by staying on cruise control when passing. Still, over the years, I have regularly witnessed truckers slowing for each other and flashing high beams to let other trucks know when it's safe to merge into their lane.

I don't see a lot of consideration among other drivers. In fact, the reverse is often true. People cut off each other without signaling and regularly don’t make way for merging drivers at on-ramps. It often feels like we conspire to keep fellow drivers off-balance, with one-upmanship the goal.

Highway exits and entrances: literally crunch time
Ever been overtaken by a vehicle in the next lane that's clearly in a hurry but had no place to go? They want to merge in front of you but instead of allowing it you inch forward, often tailgating the vehicle ahead of you, to deny lane entry?

Dad always let them in, even if the other driver was obviously being a jerk. Why? It was the safer play.

What makes us decide when to be benevolent and yielding and when not? So many times there are situations where clear cooperation can lead to mutually satisfying results. Yet we often let our egos get in the way of making decisions that are safe or right or just.

I believe when we’re on the road, most of us don't think about the other driver in human ways. It reminds me of how we can often show up in the world. We're so centered on our own lives we fail think how we might be able to help out the other person.
Dad's '98 AKA: Red Leader

Oh, we do our part. But a lot of times “our part” consists of offering mere remainders of the day; we only help if it's no skin off our back.

Some people believe it's a dog eat dog world. I believe the world is what we make it. If folks did a better job of cooperating rather than inhibiting others along the road of life, we all might experience this community in richer ways.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Monday, August 18, 2014

Freedom Schools Instills Resilience and More

Not your ordinary summer camp
A few weeks ago I volunteered with Freedom Schools. The youth program was taking student participants on a field trip across the state, needed adult chaperones, so I signed up. What I witnessed that day was memorable.
Nationally, Freedom Schools serves upwards of 12,600 children in 108 cities and 29 states, according to its website. Locally, the six-week program is designed to reduce the “summer slide” phenomenon that many students experience during their three months off, as well as improve reading skills.
Staff also works to increase awareness of social/community advocacy responsibilities and empowerment, develop leadership skills, and introducing students to healthier lifestyle choices, including nutrition.
There’s another, little discussed but vitally important benefit of the program but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Students participating in the program, referred to as scholars, range in age from five to 15. I traveled with the scholars to Covert, Mich., to visit Barbara Norman, a feisty blueberry farmer who owns more than 50 acres. The field trip agenda included a presentation by Norman, lunch, a round of blueberry picking and a short stop at nearby Lake Michigan.
Farm owner Barbara Norman 'planting seeds'
It was cool and cloudy when the two buses headed out that morning. Since it was July, everyone fully expected a hot and balmy day with temperatures in the 70s or higher, so there were lots of t-shirts and shorts. But it end up remaining in the upper 50s most of the day. The skies were gray but the attitude of the scholars was nothing but sunshine.
Above chattering teeth, Ms. Norman conducted her brief presentation, which included her proud history as a third generation African American farmer in the region. A former national Small Farmer of the Year (U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service), she held the scholars’ attention with a mixture of charismatic charm and uplifting frankness.
Youth being youth, there was some degree of cutting up going on by a very few, on the bus and while picking blueberries. However, observing the staff managing the more energetic kids was a thing of beauty. Each employed a nurturing discipline rooted in the art of ‘teachable moments’. The result: sassing scholars quickly came to terms with their unacceptable behavior and quickly fell back line.
Turns out Freedom Schools is about much more than reading. An equally important component of the program is its ability to help instill resilience among its scholars. That is, the ability to become strong, healthy or successful again after experiencing misfortune. It is a personal characteristic social scientists are examining with greater appreciation these days, particularly as it relates to at-risk youth where it can be lacking.
Can I pick 'em or can't I?
Freedom Schools scholars, their parents and staff are exposed to books that reflect their own images (many but not all are African American) and are part of an integrated reading curriculum in which books, activities, field trips and games all relate to and reinforce each other. Increased resilience and improved self-esteem are welcome outcomes of the program.
These days we’re so consumed with testing students on reading, writing and arithmetic that we forget about other equally important aspects to education and learning. As such, what we refer to as “soft skills” are actually quite hard to acquire attributes. This is especially true if students come from a place where such qualities are not effectively modeled by parents or other adult caretakers, such as teachers.
Freedom Schools completed its 2014 program in July. Its closing celebration ceremony was filled with fun, music and song. If you weren't there, you missed something very special.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Don’t Let “Rule of Law” Curb Compassion for Immigrant Children

What, me scared?
Recently I had a nightmare. It was the kind where I kept trying to wake up but couldn’t. It was especially frightening because it involved children. Yours and mine.

Times were hard; like the Great Depression but much worse. The economy was a wreck and I was out of work. Unemployment soared, the result of some foreign power manipulating our nation’s economy. Trusted systems of support, like federal and local governments, police and fire departments, had essentially collapsed. Access to water and power was spotty at best.

Local militias had risen to restore order; yet had resorted to trafficking illegal drugs to fund their efforts. The result was violent, bloody combat between factions. My once stable community had become a bonafide war zone. It was the same across the country and no place was safe.

About the only thing going right in life was my family. In the dream, our kids were preteens, maybe teenagers. They were always hungry. It had gotten to the point where we couldn’t afford to keep up their clothes. So they often went to school in tatters. When school was open.

In my dream we were so poor, scared and hopeless I remember thinking I’d do anything to get my kids out of the situation. I considered working for one drug-funded militia or another, but knew sooner or later I’d end up dead, probably my kids too. Besides, that option just wasn’t in me. Still, I was desperate.

Children: by any other name
Then I was told of a place where there was opportunity. A faraway place where my kids would have a chance to grow up and live a humane life. But we only had enough resources to send my kids there, so we’d probably never see them again. The place had its own set of problems and I remember thinking sending them there was madness. And yet staying here was too dangerous.

I remember agonizing over what to do. Then, after a particularly terrifying night of warring in the streets of our neighborhood – one in which our neighbor’s daughter was killed – we made the decision: we’d send our kids to that faraway place.

There would be no friends or relatives there to greet them. Instead, we’d have to rely on the benevolence of the good people we were told lived there. A place of freedom, compassion and most of all, hope. The United States.

For me it was just a bad dream. But for many parents and children in some Central American countries, it is literally a living nightmare. From where I sit, my modest but comfortable Midwest home, sending my kids to a distant country for their survival seems impossible to imagine. At the same time it doesn’t. Because I love my kids that much.

We all need to work harder at stepping out of our self-centered worlds to really examine what’s going on elsewhere. There are places where violence and harm are systematically perpetrated on the innocent. From the comfort of our living rooms, it all can seem unreal, but it is real. Just because it isn’t happening here doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Or that it couldn’t happen here.

It’s time to set aside politics and harsh, emotionally empty phrases like “rule of law” and look with greater empathy at what’s happening to vulnerable Central American children and others who are undocumented. Remember, it was once the rule of law to force Native American relocation, enslave African Americans, intern Japanese Americans, and sterilize many with disabilities.

Let’s instead embrace and nurture child refugees arriving here to escape poverty and violence. To do otherwise is contrary to human rights. And that’s un-American.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Friday, August 1, 2014

Practice Expanding Your Point of View

Finally it’s happened. After all these years. About time too. Following decades of bewilderment and confusion, everything’s clicked and I’ve joined the masses. I finally appreciate the game of soccer!

For the longest I’ve tried to embrace it. After all, I consider myself a worldly man and soccer’s the world’s game. More than 250 million players in over 200 countries play it, according to Wikipedia. That makes soccer the most popular sport on Earth. Sorry Baseball.

It took a while. A long while. Hours of watching. Years of questioning. But at long last it’s official: I love soccer. It happened sometime during this year’s World Cup.

One moment I’m watching guys run up and down the field aimlessly kicking the ball to each other, trying to score. The next, I’m witnessing artful athletes exhibiting uncanny control of their bodies to execute a team strategy to outdo their opponents. Why did it take so long?

Winning hit or errand pitch: depends on your viewpoint
Speaking of baseball (my favorite sport), it was a similarly long road for me regarding that venerable game. Prior an epiphany about baseball, my understanding of the game was limited to my Little League experience: throw the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball. No thinking; just doing.

My eventual appreciation developed about the same way it did for soccer. Actually, in the case of baseball, it also took a six-pack of beer (in my 20s) and an expert friend of mine patiently explaining the game’s rich complexity.

So it was with football; the U.S. variety. For years as a kid, the game seemed merely to consist of two teams hurling their bodies violently into each other. I thank TV’s 50 yard line viewing angle of the game for my limited outlook.

It took going to a college game and sitting in nose-bleed seats to understand linemen weren’t simply hitting the opponent directly in front of them. They were pulling, cross-blocking, drawing and all sorts of schemes with the hike of the ball. Viewed from that higher angle, things were completely different.

The game changer in all these cases? My point of view. That is, I shifted my perspective in ways that offered a different manner of looking at things. Easier said than done in a lot of instances, and not just sports.

Expanding your viewpoint can open your mind’s eye to new possibilities. Trouble is, we often get stuck believing our point of view is rooted in hard fact. Actually, in most instances, how we think about things is based on previous experiences, mood, cultural norms, our health… any number of factors. All of them can conspire to persuade us in one direction or another – regardless of what is truth.

Such misperceptions become problematic when a person’s point of view about important social issues, like matters of race, comes into play. It can be easy for a white person to say he doesn’t see color. Easy, because his perspective is rooted in experiencing the world as a white person. And the majority of systems, policies and media convey the perception that “white is right.” And that’s wrong.

Same stairs: two outlooks
The same can be said of nondisabled individuals such as myself. For instance, attending a ball game for me consists of little more than driving there and buying a ticket. No big deal.

A person with a disability might hold a more complex perspective. Depending on their ability, will the ticket booth be low enough to buy a ticket? Are there elevators or just stairs? Will there be accessible viewing spaces for little people or for those with wheel chairs?

It can be challenging and even feel impossible to expand your viewpoint. Yet when things finally do click, it can all be worthwhile. And I’m not just talking sports.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at